Aleksandra Vrebalov: My Desert, My Rose
Nicole Lizée: The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop [Fiber-Optic Flowers]
N. Rajam: Dadra in Raga Bhairavi (Arr. Reena Esmail)
Wu Man: Ancient Echo from Four Chinese Paintings (Arr. Danny Clay)
Karin Rehnqvist: All Those Strings!
Ritva Koistinen: Kantele
Yotam Haber: break... break... break
Philip White: Electronics
Fodé Lasana Diabaté: Bara kala ta, from Sunjata's time (Arr. Jacob Garchik)
Pete Townshend: Baba O'Riley (Arr. Jacob Garchik)
Albert Behar: Lost Wax
Never an ensemble to rest on its numerous and well-earned laurels, the equally brilliant and adventurous Kronos Quartet is taking advantage of Carnegie Hall's 125th anniversary to launch their exciting "Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire" project, which consists in co-commissioning with Carnegie Hall and other like-minded partners new pieces from 25 female composers and 25 male composers for the next five years. They will premiere those works in Carnegie Hall’s cool and intimate Zankel Hall, and those not lucky enough to be in attendance for the live performances will be able to find all relevant materials online for free.
On Saturday evening, I found myself one of the lucky few in Carnegie Hall's sold-out Zankel Hall as the quartet was getting ready to perform four pieces from "Fifty for the Future" as well as five other fairly new works for string quartet in a typically widely eclectic program. That was certainly a good reason to walk down Broadway all the way to W. 57th Street and 7th Avenue, just as the sky had finally cleared up after a depressingly gray and wet day.
Our journey started with Serbian-born, New York resident Aleksandra Vrebalov and her My Desert, My Rose, which was composed for "Fifty for the Future". Therefore, Knonos cellist Sunny Yang opened the concert with gorgeously free-flowing lines before being joined by the other instruments, each of them eloquently evolving in their own world, but somehow managing to meet occasionally and stay in tune continuously. The intricate musical patterns being suggested instead of dictated on the score, each performance is bound to be unique. The one on Saturday evening powerfully highlighted the organic nature of the composition and the earthy tones of the strings. It was a stunning opening number, challenging and engaging, and I got suddenly worried that things could only go downhill from there.
Things did not exactly go downhill from there, but the rest of the program rarely matched, and definitely never surpassed, the dazzling first number. A case in point was Canadian composer Nicole Lizée's The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop [Fiber-Optic Flowers], in which the strings had to contend with various outside sources of ambient sounds such as a Simon game and a type-writer, both of which certainly brought back some long-gone memories, as well as assertive stomping by the musicians. Aiming at creating a multi-sensory world in which the artificial is integrated with the real, the mixed result felt only partially inspired and often gimmicky.
Next, Indian-American violinist N. Rajam's adroitly drew from Western and North Indian classical music traditions in her Dadra in Raga Bhairavi for solo violin that has been arranged for a string quartet. Needless to say that, when the performing string quartet happens to be the Kronos Quartet, magic invariably happens. On Saturday evening, this revised Dadra in Raga Bhairavi captivated the audience with its sinuous lines, sensual feel and delicate colors so typical of early morning hours. Sunny Yang's exacting tapping on her cello resolutely marked the metric cycle, and we all took off to enchantingly exotic land.
Exoticism was still in the cards – and in the strings – with Chinese-born, California-adopted pipa expert Wu Man, who had also been commissioned for "Fifty for the Future". Although writing for Western strings instruments was a new endeavor for her, she obviously took to it and her inconspicuous "Ancient Echo" from Four Chinese Paintings was memorably nice and sweet.
Then we were off to Nordic countries with composer Karin Rehnqvist and Finnish Kantele player Ritva Koistinen. The title All Those Strings! promised a stringfest and we did get one, with no fewer than 54 strings. A solid number of possibilities were cleverly explored, but it felt like the composition was wearing out its welcome after a while.
After intermission we moved on to peripatetic composer Yotam Haber for his break... break... break. The commission for "Fifty for the Future" had him write an originally pessimistic piece about water, drawing inspiration from Katrina's destroying path in New Orleans and refugees' hazardous sea journeys to reach Berlin, to which he later added a more hopeful touch after the birth of his daughter. For the occasion, the quartet was joined by Philip White, who was in charge of the electronics component of the score. I did not find the combination of the natural strings and grating electronics particularly attractive and longed for what could have been with strings only on such an interesting theme.
We were blissfully back to more natural sounds with the last commission for "Fifty for the Future" of the evening, which turned out to be "Bara kala ta" (He took up the archer's bow) from Sunjata's Time by Guinea-born, Mali-residing composer and balafon player Fodé Lasana Diabaté. Inspired by the grand warrior prince who founded Mali in 1235, boasting plenty of infectious rhythms and a sunny mood, it was an enjoyably light-hearted detour in the African continent.
Then we moved not only to England, but to quintessential English icon Pete Townshend (Yes, THAT Pete Townshend) and his classic Baba O'Riley, which after being winningly adapted for string quartet by Jacob Garchik is still every bit as intensely groovy as the original, providing us with the perfect opportunity to at least mentally let our hair down and party. Just in case the multi-faceted talent of the Kronos Quartet had to be proven again, their impeccably virtuosic, fiercely roof-raising performance for sure did it, earning them the most spontaneous and rousing ovation of the evening. Let there be no doubt about it: Classical musicians can rock.
After such a fun number, we went kind of local with Ojai-born Brooklyn resident Albert Behar's Lost Wax, whose laudable goal was to connect Bela Bartok's wax cylinder phonograph recordings and his string quartets felt like embarking on a new adventure that was part intellectually stimulating endeavor, part borderline tedious and overextended homework.
After two hours of keeping the audience on their toes, the Kronos Quartet's founding violinist David Harrington announced that for their encore they wanted to play a piece by a worthy composer who never made it to Carnegie Hall. So we finished our evening with a red-hot instrumental version of Geeshie Wiley's song "Last Kind Words", Harrington's violin brilliantly singing the blues among flawlessly rhythmical pizzicatos popping out from the three other instruments. They kept us on our toes until the very end.
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